State Asks Kuskokwim Communities To Prepare For Breakup Flooding

Apr 20, 2021

Credit Gabby Salgado / KYUK

It’s spring. Temperatures are warming, and breakup on the Kuskokwim River is approaching. Here's a look at ice and snow conditions along the river, and how to prepare for potential flooding.

On April 19, more than 50 people gathered on a teleconference to share their thoughts, concerns, and observations about how breakup is progressing along the Kuskokwim River. National Weather Service Hydrologist Celine Van Breukelen said that a heavy snowpack along the river makes flooding likely this year.

“I’m especially concerned about the lower villages,” Van Breukelen said, referring to the tundra villages along the Johnson River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim.

Van Breukelen is worried about the tundra becoming saturated with snowmelt, and the water not having anywhere to drain. Last year, the tundra village of Nunapitchuk experienced its worst flooding in years, and community leaders declared a state of emergency. Other tundra villages flooded as well, accelerating erosion and permafrost degradation in the area.

Van Breukelen said that a snow station in Aniak is measuring the most snow ever recorded in its almost decade-long history; it was installed in 2013. On April 1, the snow measured 33 inches, compared to 21 inches last year. Farther upriver in McGrath, the snowpack is similar to last year’s, measuring 41 inches this year, compared to 44 inches the year before.

Residents along the river said that the snow in their areas was melting fast, with several feet of snow remaining to melt. Some people also said that travel along the river had dropped significantly, with most travel occurring in the early morning following the night’s freeze-up. Overflow also stretched along the river.

Red Devil resident Rebecca Wilmarth said that most of the ice near her community has turned slushy.

“The augur just went through without very much effort involved,” Wilmarth said, describing a recent ice fishing trip.

She said that the ice conditions look similar to years when it melted in place.

Native Village of Napaimute Director of Operations Mark Leary helped measure ice thickness along the lower river throughout the winter. He said that the ice mostly measures below average thickness because of the insulating snow. Thinner ice could reduce the likelihood of ice jams. An exception is the river ice from Akiak downriver to the upper end of Kuskokwak Slough. Leary said that the ice in this area measured about 4 feet in January and continued to grow. He’s concerned that this thick section might jam during breakup.

“That section might be worth keeping an eye on. It might have a hard time moving out,” Leary said.

Emergency Management Specialist Desiree Chambers with the State Emergency Operations Center encouraged Kuskokwim communities to prepare for flooding by reviewing their emergency response plans.

“I’m encouraging communities to look at their plans, and the numbers, and their points of contact, and put in any updates that are needed,” Chambers said.

She also encouraged communities to prepare evacuation sites, like schools, in case people need to retreat there. Also to begin reaching out to people who would need to be evacuated if water levels rise.

“We would encourage any evacuation that needs to be done, or movement out of a flood area, to be kept as local as possible,” Chambers said.

If a community would need to evacuate out of the local area, Chambers said that the state will help the community prepare a plan for how to do that.

Sgt. First Class Joe Sallaffie with the Alaska Army National Guard said that the Bethel armory could serve as a regional evacuation site. Under pandemic protocols, the building could house 60 to 75 people in cots spaced 6 feet apart.

Currently, the National Guard does not have plans to station a Black Hawk helicopter in Bethel during breakup.